Monday, November 10, 2003

First lady Laura Bush, one of her husband’s secret weapons in the 2000 election, is already hard on the campaign trail, drawing millions of dollars in contributions for the Bush-Cheney 2004 re-election campaign.

Mrs. Bush yesterday hit two fund-raisers — one in Delaware and the other in Maine — bringing her total to 13 since June. The first lady has collected more than $5 million so far, and she said the campaign has not yet really begun in earnest.

“It’s fun to campaign, it’s fun to see friends all over the country, and so it’s hard to believe it’s gotten here so soon,” she told reporters yesterday in Wilmington, Del. “But in a lot of ways, I think the campaign won’t really start until we know for sure who the other candidate is. I think we have a couple more months without a really intense sort of campaign, maybe I guess starting in late January or February.”

Still, the first lady is a formidable force for the 2004 re-election and the Bush-Cheney campaign is expected to tap the resource often. The popular former librarian and teacher gives Republicans a warm and sincere draw for female voters.

Unlike President Bush, who often delivers 30-minute speeches to thousands of supporters in massive convention centers, Mrs. Bush’s fund-raising events are far more personal.

“She’s a tremendous asset,” Communications Director Nicole Devinish said. “If you see her on the campaign trail, she generates a great deal of excitement. She’s an effective fund-raiser and messenger for the president’s re-election effort and we’ve been very lucky to have the amounts of time we’ve had in her schedule.”

Despite Mr. Bush’s laugh-line delivered at each campaign fund-raiser he attends — “I’m loosening up and I’m getting ready” — the Bush-Cheney campaign already is in full swing. The campaign has collected nearly $100 million for the election season but does not face a primary battle.

Mr. Bush also jokes often that supporters who have shelled out thousands of dollars to see him “drew the short straw,” then praises his wife and sends her regrets. Often, Mrs. Bush is in another part of the country attending fund-raisers and visiting schools and libraries.

Yesterday, for instance, Mr. Bush traveled to Little Rock, Ark., and later to Greenville, S.C., for two fund-raisers. Mrs. Bush hit the two fund-raisers in Maine and Delaware, and together, the efforts brought in $2.4 million. While Mr. Bush’s $2,000-a-plate affair greatly outpaced Mrs. Bush’s $250-per-person fund-raiser, the first lady has become a proven draw and a popular presence on the campaign trail.

Like the president, Mrs. Bush relishes traveling and meeting Americans.

“My husband and I have the true privilege of getting to see how strong and resilient and resolute Americans are. And that’s what we see everywhere we go,” she said yesterday in Delaware.

While she called life on the road “fun,” she added that there are drawbacks, such as listening to a steady stream of criticism about her husband.

“I won’t say it never hurts, because of course it does,” the first lady said. “But after a lifetime in politics, which is what it seems like now for my husband and me with his father’s many races and then my husband’s governorship in Texas and now here at the White House, you do become a little bit used to it.

“It’s just a fact of life in politics, in any politics, in any country, that’s the way it is. And we’re a country that is so free, we have the freedom to say bad things about people who are the president or who are running for office. And that’s one of our luxuries, one of our freedoms we have in the United States.”

Asked how tough the “endless fund-raising cycle” is, Mrs. Bush said simply: “Not that tough.”

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